Scripture: Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:12-17 ESV
Observation: Having triumphed over the devil’s three temptations that aimed at derailing Jesus’ mission (to atone for our sins through perfect obedience to the Father), Christ now embarks on the first leg of his three-plus year ministry. Exercising prudence, Jesus heeds John’s arrest and withdraws to Capernaum. Matthew, keen on proving that Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecies, again cites a quote from Isaiah (9:1-2).
The village of Capernaum lays on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its commercial fishery would generate a sizable tax base, warranting the presence of a tax collector who would become one of Jesus’ disciples (9:9) and the author of this Gospel. And here also, Peter lived with his wife and mother-in-law (8:14).
Regarding Matthew’s link to Isaiah’s prophecy, his point is to show the reader that Jesus began his ministry where most needed: in a segment of the nation far removed from Jerusalem, the epicenter of religious worship and learning. Hence, “a great light… has dawned” in the region where people are “dwelling in darkness” and are on the cusp of the “shadow of death” (v.16). As theologian Barnabas Lindars notes, the Hebrew word aneteilen translated “dawned,” suggest the light first shown brilliantly here. Thus, for Matthew, this detail of Christ’s first leg of his ministry fulfills the Messianic promise to be a light to “Galilee of the Gentiles” and points us to his Great Commission pronounced at this Gospel’s end: to make disciples of all nations.
Takeaway: Matthew provides a turn of phrase (“From that time”) that divides his Gospel into three notable segments of Jesus’ ministry:
- Preparation: birth, baptism, and wilderness temptation (1:1-4:16).
- Proclamation: teaching, healing, confronting (4:17-16:20).
- Passion and Inauguration of his kingdom: transfiguration, journey to Jerusalem, crucifixion, resurrection, and commissioning (16:21-28:20).
And as Matthew emphasizes throughout the text, Christ’s Gospel message centers on the urgency of repentance and reengagement, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.
As Christians in our post-modern world of me-centered relevancy that pushes back on authority and cancels those who disagree with our worldviews, vast segments of society “dwell in darkness.” Now more than ever, we need to lovingly take Jesus’ message of hope to those who live in the “shadow of death” with a sense of urgency. The challenge lies with the baggage we carry from the twentieth-century church that acted more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day: focusing on the sins of others while giving ourselves a pass. Instead of moving toward the darkness with the light and love of Christ, we shouted judgment from a distance.
So how do we move forward in fulfilling Christ’s commission? It begins with deepening our understanding of his all-sufficient grace. Indeed, it will start in us if we want to see a revival of repenting, receiving his grace, and reengaging. Matthew, a societal-outcast tax collector, knew the extent of his sinful heart and inability to fix himself. Desperate for change, when Jesus’ invited him to leave it all behind, he did. Soon, his thoughts turned toward colleagues and friends, whom he hoped would hear the good news and join him in following Jesus (9:9-13).
Whether Matthew, Paul, or us, ongoing repentance and reengagement, sparked by a maturing understanding of the depth of our sinfulness covered by Christ’s insurmountable grace, will shine the brightest in the darkness and bring hope to those who have bought into the fleeting promises of our me-centered culture.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who fulfilled his mission of bringing the light of his Gospel into the darkness and shadows of our lives. Would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit in deepening our understanding of our sinful nature and your glorious grace so that we might be quick to repent and reengage in his kingdom-building work? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling